Juan Cole provides an overview of eight key talking points from President Obama’s State of the Union speech.
US President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address slighted foreign policy in favor of touting domestic progress and proposing new domestic initiatives. But there were some foreign policy highlights worth underlining.
“Will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing? Or will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet?
“Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another, or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?”
“When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military, then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do.
“I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership. We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents.”
So his keynotes are a preference for diplomacy over military commitments, and where diplomacy is not enough, a preference for coalitions over unilateral American action. We’ve seen these principles in action in the Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
2) Obama does not use the diction of the War on Terror, but he continued to highlight counterterrorism as a keystone of US policy abroad. He said: “First, we stand united with people around the world who’ve been targeted by terrorists, from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris. We will continue … to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we have done relentlessly since I took office, to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies.”
“Hunting down” and unilateral drone strikes — what is implied here — are not actually very sophisticated counterterrorism tactics.
Obama went on to argue for coalition building as a means to counter terrorism. He said:
“At the same time, we’ve learned some costly lessons over the last 13 years. Instead of Americans patrolling the valleys of Afghanistan, we’ve trained their security forces, who’ve now taken the lead, and we’ve honored our troops’ sacrifice by supporting that country’s first democratic transition. Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America.”
I think it is too soon to tell if the Afghanistan National Army will fight and stand against the Taliban without US military back-up. After all, the new Iraqi army the US equipped and trained just collapsed in June.
3) Then Obama turned to his current wars, in Iraq and Syria:
“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership, including our military power, is stopping ISIL’s [Islamic State] advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group … We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.”
It is true that US and other bombing campaigns did halt the advances of Daesh (ISIL, ISIS or Islamic State). But it is also true that Daesh has actually continued to gain territory in al-Anbar province and in eastern Syria. And, from all accounts, Obama failed to recruit Turkey to a significant role the effort against al-Qaeda offshoots. Daesh has been somewhat contained but not rolled back or destroyed. Aside from dropping some bombs, it is hard to see what the “neighbors” have done.
The president added: “Now, this effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL … We need that authority.”
Obama had tried to have Congress own the Syrian intervention in fall of 2013 (it wasn’t clear he would get a majority in that vote if it had been held). Here, he is trying again. Politically, this step works for him, since his Republican critics likely have to go along, and so become co-opted to his policies.
4) Then he turned to Cuba:
“In Cuba, we are ending a policy … that was long past its expiration date … When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new … And our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere and removes the phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba, stands up for democratic values and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo.
“As — as his Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of small steps. These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba.”
Obama worked Cuba into his policies of smart engagement; though his Havana policy is the opposite of his Ukraine policy. He is dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin through boycotts, but ending the boycott on Fidel Castro.
5) Then the president spoke of his Iran negotiations:
“Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran, where, for the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material. Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran, secures America and our allies, including Israel, while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict.
“There’re no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran. But new sanctions passed by this Congress at this moment in time will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails, alienating America from its allies, making it harder to maintain sanctions and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress … The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.”
Obama is taking a hard line here against the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Israel lobbies, which are influential both with Republicans and Democrats in Congress. AIPAC had campaigned to get further sanctions on Iran, probably in hopes of torpedoing the current negotiations. The Likud government of Israel, for which AIPAC is an unlicensed foreign agent, does not believe that negotiations can succeed and wants the US to force Iran to give up nuclear enrichment altogether.
Obama is pointing out that derailing the negotiations de facto means going to war with Iran down the road. Most Americans in polling side with Obama on this one.
6) The president went on to say: “Third, we’re looking beyond the issues that have consumed us in the past to shape the coming century … No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids.”
This part was so disappointing because it was frankly dishonest. The US National Security Agency has deliberately weakened encryption standards and is itself intensively spying on the metadata of private citizens in unconstitutional ways. Likewise disappointing was this: “And there’s one last pillar of our leadership, and that’s the example of our values … As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened, which is why I’ve prohibited torture and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained.”
Obama’s drone program, as Jeremy Scahill has pointed out, is opaque, extrajudicial and lacking in oversight. It isn’t “constrained” at all. On government eavesdropping and on drones, Obama has a blind spot and is a conservative rather than a liberal, eschewing checks and balances and declining to privilege human rights over government prerogatives.
7) Finally, Obama said welcome things about climate change, but his energy policy of “all of the above” contradicts what he said about green energy. If it truly is a key challenge, then we can’t celebrate new shale oil rigs.
“We believed we could reduce our dependence on foreign oil and protect our planet. And today, America is number one in oil and gas. America is number one in wind power. Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008, Obama said.”
What kind of climate change activism is it to boast of producing more shale petroleum? How can Obama have this blind spot? Hydrocarbons are evil, and we should get off them ASAP. The US increased its carbon dioxide output in 2014, back up to 5.5 billion metric tons.
A different course of action was suggested by Obama’s further remarks:
“2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does: 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.
“I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists, that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist either. But you know what? I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA and at NOAA and at our major universities, and the best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we don’t act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration and conflict and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.
“That’s why, over the past six years, we’ve done more than ever to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it. That’s why we’ve set aside more public lands and waters than any administration in history. And that’s why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts. I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action.
“In Beijing, we made a historic announcement: the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.”
8) Finally, Obama took a stand against both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The American value of dignity, Obama said, impelled an opposition to hate speech toward religious groups, whether it be Sikhs or Muslims.
“It’s why we speak out against the deplorable anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world … It’s why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims, the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace. That’s why we defend free speech and advocate for political prisoners and condemn the persecution of women or religious minorities or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.”
Obama’s insistence on rejecting Islamophobia is precisely the kind of policy needed to combat al-Qaeda’s sneaky “sharpening of contradictions” strategy.
As I have argued before, Obama’s Syria policy is a mess, consisting more of talking points (supporting the virtually non-existent “moderate rebels” while bombing Daesh) than of practical strategy. And he makes more of his current Iraq policy than is warranted; so far he is just doing containment, with mixed results and nothing more.
It is not clear that Obama even has a Yemen policy, and it is strange that he didn’t say more about that crisis and its implications for the US.
And his “all of the above” energy policy is lacking in courage. He is trying to make oil and coal workers happy while trying to retain the environmentalists. I don’t think it will work because it is too unwieldy. Anyway, there are now 120,000 solar workers in the US and only 80,000 direct coal miners.
But on the positive side, Obama has avoided new conventional wars and is winding down Afghanistan. He responded to the Iraq crisis in a limited and prudent way. He wants negotiations with Iran to succeed. In all of that, he is superior to a Mitt Romney, who actually ran on a more aggressive, neoconservative foreign and military policy.
*[This article was originally published by Juan Cole’s Informed Comment.]
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